Obama vs. Romney on the Mideast

Where the candidates come down on Syria, Iran and other key regional questions. 

Mitt Romney gave his most detailed foreign-policy speech last week at the Virginia Military Institute, just in time for his forthcoming foreign-policy debate with Barack Obama. Romney’s focus on the Middle East in that address allows for a serious discussion about the similarities and differences between the policies of each candidate toward that region.

The Middle East was barely mentioned in Tuesday night’s debate. Romney said the President’s regional “strategy is unraveling before our very eyes,” listing Egypt, Iran, Israel, Libya and Syria, but before he could explain his position moderator Candy Crowley changed topics.

The October 22 foreign-policy debate, however, will give Obama and Romney ample opportunities to talk about the Middle East, and U.S. voters can hope moderator Bob Schieffer pushes the candidates to discuss real differences.

A look at candidates’ policy pronouncements to date shows remarkable similarities in security policies toward the Middle East, while the two men differ on how to manage relationships in the region.

Iran

Prior to the consulate attack in Benghazi last month, Iran was one of the few foreign-policy issues raised in this election campaign. Appearing on Meet the Press on September 9, Romney called the Obama administration’s handling of the Iranian nuclear program perhaps its biggest failure.

However, the Romney campaign hasn’t laid out a path appreciably different from Obama-administration actions.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Romney said the United States must “restore its credibility with Iran,” a point he and his surrogates often make. But restoring credibility is a strategy, not a policy, and the Romney camp has failed to outline the policies that would restore U.S. credibility.

A “red line” that would trigger U.S. action against Iran became a major issue when Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu demanded that the United States clarify this marker. The president said: “The United States will do what we must to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”

In a September 14 interview with ABC News, Romney agreed specifically that his red line was the same as the president’s. However, since then he and his surrogates have differentiated their red line by saying Iran should not have the “capability” to produce nuclear weapons, although the meaning of “capability” remains fuzzy.

Prime Minister Netanyahu also has emphasized that Iran should not be allowed to have the capability for a nuclear weapon, but top Romney surrogate Eliot Cohen has said that where Romney draws the line “could be in a different place than Mr. Netanyahu draws it.”

On the possibility of a war with Iran, critics on the Left and Right raise fears that, as conservative writer Daniel Larison put it, a Romney administration “will almost certainly be stuffed to the gills with militarists and Iran hawks.”

While several of Romney's advisers led the United States into Iraq, it is clear that the United States has reached a post-9/11, post-Iraq stasis in its security policy toward the Middle East. Not even the most hawkish of hawks are suggesting a ground invasion into Iran.

Also, if Obama is taken at his word, a U.S. attack on Iran would be just as likely in a second Obama administration if sanctions fail to halt the Iranian nuclear program.

Syria

As Syria’s civil war rages, neither side has a plan to end the bloodshed. Indeed, Romney’s stated policy for Syria is almost identical to what the Obama administration has been carrying out.

At the VMI Romney said, “In Syria, I will work with our partners to identify and organize those members of the opposition who share our values and ensure they obtain the arms they need to defeat Assad's tanks, helicopters, and fighter jets.” Reportedly, the CIA is already doing this.

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